Salad dressing is one of the easiest, fastest things to make, and yet it’s also most commonly pre-made and store-bought, in one of a handful of standard varieties (which I’m sure many a waitperson could dutifully recite).
The next step closer to homemade dressing are those little spice envelopes that you mix with a base to create a quick dressing. Those are fine and good, but watch out for preservatives. Economic as they may seem, it’s still cheaper to do your own spice mix, and as with all handcrafted goodness, making your dressing from scratch allows you the control and flexibility to add any personal touches or flares you may desire.
I love this post by Charmian Christie of Christie’s Corner, which joins me in singing the praises of homemade dressing and breaks them down into five essential components: oil, acid, sweet, salt, and aromatics.
Next time you’re serving guests a beautiful, fresh salad (or fixing one for yourself!) consider taking a couple of minutes to create your own dressing. It’s impressive, it’s memorable, and it’s sure to beat the Wishbone or Hidden Valley bottle.
Select a base. For vinaigrettes or other oil-based dressings, choose a light, subtle oil. I love using olive oil and avocado oil; sesame oil is great for an Asian flavor profile. For creamy dressings like Ranch, use sour cream and mayonnaise thinned out with buttermilk (the Pioneer Woman has a great recipe with photos).
Balance oils and acids. For every cup of oil, you’ll need roughly 1/3 to 1/2 cup of vinegar. See how different vinegars pair with your other flavors—balsamic might be too heavy, in which case red wine vinegar is often a good alternative. Rice wine vinegar is the one to reach for if you’re going Asian. You can also use lime or lemon juice. Skip this step for creamy dressings.
Layer in your herbs and flavors. These are all going to be to taste, but generally a couple of tablespoons to 1/4 cup will do, whether it’s fresh chopped or dried herbs, black pepper, seeds, onion, avocado, mustard, blue cheese, hibiscus leaves, hot sauce, Worstechire, chile—use your imagination! For stronger flavors like garlic and ginger, go a little lighter and taste often to make sure they don’t overpower the rest.
Throw in a little bit of sweet and salty. Sweetness will make sure your dressing doesn’t have too much of an acidic bite, and of course a little salinity will round it out and bring all of your flavors together. Plain old sugar and salt do the trick, but you can also use honey, molasses, fruit juice, soy sauce, garlic salt, etc.
Mix it up. Make sure that all of your elements are very well combined to get the full effect. For vinaigrettes, this often means mixing it with enough force to create an emulsion, so that the oil and acid combine rather than separating.
Enjoy! Serve your dressing in a gravy boat, a small bowl with a spout or spoon, or a glass bottle. Store what you don’t use right away in an airtight container with a tight-fitting lid. Along with topping salads, homemade dressings can make a great snack with cut carrots and celery, liven up a sack lunch sandwich and even be used to marinate or brine proteins and veggies before grilling.